Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Bologna FC 1909: a colourful history

As critics and commentators commemorate the slow and agonizing death of Italian football—based on the poor crowd attendances, corruption, match-fixing, exodus of star players, poor National Team showing, some violence, Champions League defeats (though Inter have fairly easy-ish route to the final), demise of the Old Lady, etc etc— I have found myself drawn to one Serie A football club, in particular Bologna FC 1909.

I can't really explain why my fascination has fallen on this rather tasty sounding club whose recent past has been troubled by managerial sackings, board changes, financial problems, and whose main aim of the last three decades has really to been to try to avoid relegation from Serie A. Somewhere along the way in my life I must have read or heard of nice things about the Emilia-Romagna region, about Bologna and Ravenna especially. Maybe I've always just had a thing for Bolognese sauce... Aesthetically wise I think the rossoblu have the best kit in the league. Red and blue stripes and white shorts. The away kit equally pleasing, plain white with a red and blue horizontal stripe in the middle. Also their stadium manages to look beautiful even half empty with its red brick, which is oh so more easy on the eye than the concrete grey.

After being sold on the colours of the club (which I believe is the only true and honest way to choose a club—I'm a person who'd find it extremely hard to support a club whose colours consisted of just red and white ;) I wanted to learn more about the history, culture, and support of the club which matter somewhat.

In many places I've read that Bologna is a left-wing club. Bologna and the Emilia-Romagna area is a politically liberal place today. Bologna is a university city full of liberal minded students. The city's three nicknames: la grassa (the fat); la rossa (the red); la dotta (the learned) are named respectively for the city's reputation of good cuisine, communist politics (the region was the home Italy's Communist Party), and historic university. With Bologna's ultras of the 1970s, the Red and Blue Commandoes, displaying clear left-wing leanings on the curva you'd expect all these factors to point to club with a strongly left-wing history and culture. Though things aren't so clear cut as I was to find out as I researched the history of Bologna in the academic history books (specifically in John Foot's Calcio, and Simon Martin's Football and Fascism) and the online fan biographies of the club. The club has a much darker history which isn't much acknowledged on the fan biographies or the wikipedias of both the English and Italian language, it all seemingly somewhat revisionist.

The birth of Bologna FC 1909 started off like most other football clubs on the continent, by a foreigner of some kind who had encountered the British game somewhere or a rather. In this case it was Austrian Emilio Arnstein, who developed his love of football during his university studies in Prague and Vienna. He had arrived in beautiful city of Bologna in 1908 during the free and easy times of the belle époque where literary discussion in cafes proved more popular then the kicking around of a football. He established Bologna FC 1909 in 1909 of all years and the club's history from this point is largely boring up until the club wins its first Scudetto in 1925.

Enter Leandro Arpinati, the anti-villain of this story. The year is 1925 and Italy is teetering on the brink of absolute dictatorship, Arpinati originally an Anarchist is now chief fascist of the Emilia-Romagna region. His fascist death-squads violently broke up socialist meetings and disrupted and destroyed the agricultural wage labourers' unions, with violence they turned a socialist region into a fascist one. Those of different political views were scared into submitting or had fled. Entrusted with the task of constructing a new fascist society in Emilia-Romagna, Aprinati believed that he could maintain the consensus of the people through alternative means, in this case, football. He hoped to destroy any identity or sympathy the local people of Bologna had with the previous socialist administrations and replace it with admiration and respect for the fascist party by making Bologna the most important city in the North of Italy, and more importantly by making the Bologna FC 1909 team the best in Italian football.

Leandro Arpinati

Back in Italy's 1924/25 season, the northern league was split into two groups with the winner of each group battling it out in a finals series to determine the winner of the league. The winner of the northern league would then play off against the winner of the (less prominent) southern league. This season the two contenders of the northern league were Bologna and Genoa who would battle for the title over an unusual five matches marred by controversy. The first final was held over two legs which eventuated into a draw which required a replay tie-breaker but this time in neutral territory in Milan. In this Genoa were leading 2-0 at half time cruising to victory when in the second half Bologna striker Muzzioli's shot, seen by the Bologna fans as a goal, was deemed tipped round the post by Genoa goalkeeper De Pra by the far-away situated referee Giovanni Mauro— the most respected referee in Italy at that time—who gave a corner to Bologna. Then suddenly occurred a pitch invasion by Arpinati's black shirted fascists who surrounded referee Mauro, who after a whole 15 minutes eventually caved in to the threatening fascists by awarding Bologna a goal. Bologna then naturally went on to equalise causing this tie-breaker to need another tie-breaker. This was played in Turin which resulted in yet another draw, with an early case of football hooliganism taking place at Turin's station after the match, Bologna fans were reported to have shot at Genoa fans as their train left. The final final was then again to be held in Turin but this time behind closed doors in a secret location with only a few journalists allowed to attend. It proved to be an easy win for Bologna as they won 2-0 even despite having a man sent off four minutes into the second half and another near the end. Bologna went on to thrash Alba Roma 6-0 on aggregate in the north-south league play-off. Bologna had its first scudetto, but throughout Italy and especially by Genoa fans, this achievement would be known as the 'grand theft'.

Arpinati's ambitions to improve the prestige of Bologna FC 1909 and the city included the construction of a new neo-medieval brick stadium in 1924, this was to be called the 'Littoriale'. A great piece of Roman influenced architecture, this stadium would link Mussolini and Arpinati's fascist regime with the Imperial past. Covering 125 thousand square metres and using 2,000 tons of cement, this new modern stadium would include among other things, swimming pools and tennis courts. While other stadium facades at the time did nothing to hide the dull concrete surface, the Littoriale covered the concrete with the traditional local red brick of the Emilia-Romagna area. The Littoriale would not look out of place in the medieval architecture of Bologna. A grand tower was also built overlooking the stadium, making it today still one of the most unique and memorable stadiums in the world. Though according to academics a tower was a Fascist symbol of authority and a throwback to the medieval 'civic towers'. Mussolini praised the stadium for being "a shining example of what can be done with the will and tenacity of Fascism, as personified in Bologna by Leandro Aprinati". It seems the stadium's main role was to act symbolically for the Fascist regime, rather than true functionality for the Bologna FC fans as the stadiums capacity would have required a quarter of Bologna's population.

The stadium came to good Fascist use when in October 1926, the stadium was ready for its official inauguration just in time to mark the fourth anniversary of the Fascists' 'march on Rome'. A packed out Littoriale witnessed and applauded as Il Duce rode into the stadium on a white horse, who went on to make speech to open the new stadium. After the speech Mussolini was driven to the train station by Arpinati in an open top limousine, and as they drove through the massive crowd a gunshot narrowly missed Mussolini. The culprit narrowed out by Calvary Officer Carlo Pasolini* happened to be a 15 year old Anarchist Anteo Zamboni who naturally was apprehended and attacked by the Fascist crowd before being lynched. His body, which was full of bullets and knife wounds, was then torn to pieces and carried around the city in triumph. The attempt on Mussolini's life had great repercussions all around Italy as new laws were set up, including ones which reintroduced the death penalty and banned all political parties and their newspapers except the Fascist party. A special fascist police service would also be set up, while retribution was reaped upon socialists and opposition party offices around Italy, with liberals' and socialists' threatened and attacked. The Fascists had finally destroyed all free speech in Italy.

Bologna FC would go on to win six of its seven titles during Italy's fascists years, the club having little success after World War II. The club held respectable top ten positions during the 50s and 60s, the main hero at this period being midfielder Giacomo Bulgarelli with the last Scudetto coming in the 63/64 season. The club's last real success occurred in the early 70s with the 1970 and 1974 Coppa Italia trophies, and from there on it all was pretty much was down hill. Their relegation into Serie B (and after into Serie C1) in 1981 was marked by the traumatic departure of club grown prodigy Roberto Mancini to Sampdoria. Only 16 at the time, Mancini finished his last season with Bologna as the fourth-top scorer in the league.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Italy went through a period of political turmoil between leftist and rightist factions known as the 'years of lead'. The political friction would carry on to the football terraces of Italy as this period also gave birth to the Ultras who often sided with one ideology or another. The political beliefs of the region were the football club was from would more than likely correlate with the preferences espoused by the ultras, which meant Communist Emilia-Romagna's Bologna FC would likely have left-wing fans, as opposed to conservative Verona. Friendships between Ultras from other groups of similar political persuasions would come about with Bologna Ultras helping the working-class Ultras of AC Milan in solidarity against the right-wing Inter fans in brawls. Bologna's main Ultra group was the Forever Ultras which was born in 1974 from a merger with the old left-wing Red and Blue Commandoes. While the Forever Ultras still today stand on the Curva Andrea Costa, and though in the past songs praising the 'Red Brigade' were common, due to changing political times it would be an inaccuracy to label them as left-wing. 'Not fascist' would be a more accurate term, while another group who they share the Curva Andrea Costa with, the 'Mods' are unashamedly right-wing. The two Bolognese Ultra groups have had fractious and troubled relations ever since hooligans from the Mods attacked African immigrants in Bologna with aid from Roma Ultras in the mid 90s. Ultras Forever condemned the attacks in a press release. Another Ultra group of note on the Curva Andrea Costa is the Freak Boys of Bologna whose symbol is the marijuana leaf (heavily smoked on the curvas of Italy) and the Jamaican flag.

Bologna FC's most recent problem (off-field) has been the issue of club ownership. After returning to the Serie A in the 2008/2009 season, the club was bought by a local group led by Francesca Menarini who would become the club's first female chairman, though after two years the Menarini family sold to the ambitious Sergio Porcedda who made several grandiose claims including plans to build a new stadium and a pledge to take Bologna FC to Europe. In reality the club failed to pay outstanding tax bills, player wages were not being paid, and plans to build a new stadium and to buy better players never eventuated. Fans left a coffin at the club's training ground with the message 'Adesso basta porci' a word play on Porcedda's name. A pig's head was also skewered onto the training ground's gates. Then in late December 2010, a saviour looked to have appeared in Bologna local Massimo Zanetti, head of world famous Segafredo coffee company, taking over as the new owner. But this new regime was short-lived as Zanetti stepped down as president after less than a month in charge due to internal board trouble, with Marco Pavignani becoming interim president. Ownership, financial, and board issues still plague the club now.

Surprisingly while Bologna's 2010/11 season has been marred by much board/financial problems, the team has still managed to bring in results that are above anyones expectations. With only eight games to go, Bologna are sitting pretty midway in the table at tenth on 40pts—very very good especially considering they have been docked 3pts for unpaid taxes and wages. Bologna's done what it's had to do to achieve its aim to avoid relegation: maintain a solid home record, take points off bigger teams while beating the relegation rivals. Highlights so far include the 3-1 defeat of Lazio at home, and the 2-0 defeat of Juventus in Turin. Manager Alberto Malesani, known for his good performance with Chievo in the early 90s, has turned Bologna FC 1909 into a solid, structured team, which when it gets them, takes its chances ever so well. Normally playing a 4-3-2-1 with Marco Di Vaio leading the charge up front (having scored 18 goals so far—fourth currently in Serie A), the team has solidity in midfield in Mudingayi (not the best of passers), a highly sought after CB in Miguel Britos, a highly promising winger in Gaston Ramirez, and the Italian national side's second choice goalkeeper, Emiliano Viviano.

While Porcedda is gone, and so too is his promise to take Bologna to Europe, the reality is that right now Bologna are not that far off from securing a European spot. The club has financial problems at the moment, but just imagine what a little bit of money injected could do to such a team already in the better half of the table. As the popular chant goes, 'fino alla fine forza Bologna!'.

*Carlo Pasolini happened to be the father of famous film director and intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini—himself a big fan of Bologna FC. He's most famous for his 'Salo' movie which I highly recommend you see. 

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